Maine court hears Moosehead case
Critics of a massive residential development in the Moosehead Lake region urged the state supreme court on Tuesday to send the case back to Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission, while a lawyer for the agency argued that the panel acted within its discretion in approving the sprawling project.
Phil Worden, a lawyer representing two environmental groups, told the court that additional proceedings are required even if that causes additional work or further delays in the yearslong process because the Land Use Regulation Commission included amendments in its final plan.
“ What they’re worried about is how much of a can of worms are we going to be reopening. That’s a legitimate worry on their part but we’re entitled to have it done by the law,” he said.
Jerry Reid, a lawyer for the commission, said there’s no new information to be gained from reopening the proceedings that couldn’t have been obtained in the earlier hearings.
The plan by Seattle-based Plum Creek calls for 821 house lots and two resorts with more than 1,200 housing units at Big Moose Mountain and Lilly Bay. It was approved in September 2009, nearly five years after the company announced plans to rezone nearly 400,000 acres.
Gov. Paul LePage described the lengthy proceedings as a perfect example of how Maine’s red tape and regulations can serve to stymie private investment.
“A business should have the opportunity to know how long the permitting process is going to be. Anything that takes a matter of years should be considered unacceptable,” Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, said Tuesday from Augusta.
The process will likely continue for at least a few more months to give the Maine Supreme Judicial Court time to consider the arguments. And it’s playing out as the Legislature considers overhauling the structure of the commission, which handles zoning in Maine’s unorganized territories.
Weeks of hearings
The Land Use Regulation Commission held four weeks of hearings on the Plum Creek plan in December 2007 and January 2008. There were 26 parties and nearly 170 witnesses during that phase of the process. More than 400 additional witnesses testified during four full days of public hearings.
Following those hearings, the commission developed amendments to Plum Creek’s proposed concept plan based on the evidence presented during the hearings.
A Superior Court justice agreed with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Forest Ecology Network and Restore: The North Woods that that the commission should’ve reopened the proceedings to allow further comment. The LePage administration, joined by The Nature Conservancy, appealed the judge’s decision.
Worden, who represents RESTORE and the Forest Ecology Network, told supreme court justices that the Land Use Regulation Commission sidestepped its own rules by proposing amendments. “ You cannot come up with an ad hoc procedure afterward,” he said. “Our concern is that ad hoc procedures lead to ad hoc decisions, however well-intentioned they are.”
But Reid said the commission’s rules gave it broad discretion in the Plum Creek matter and said critics had conjured up “ a theoretical claim of prejudice.”
He also said Plum Creek critics have been unable to identify what new witnesses would be questioned if the case is reopened after the exhaustive hearings.
“The question is who are these mystery witnesses and why was the commission not told about them while this matter was still pending before the agency?” he said.